With an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, American consumers are a conflicted lot, when it comes to food. They say they want more healthful foods, but the tug of rich, flavorful fare often proves overwhelming. While most diners feel the choice is often one or the other, Mediterranean cuisine has developed an aura of a silver bullet of sorts that can satisfy both cravings.
Incorporating healthful oils, grains, vegetables, fruit, lean meats and a veritable library of spices, it has at least the patina of health. Add in preparation techniques that can work to turbocharge ingredient combinations to create unique flavors, and it is easy to see why Mediterranean fare is firing on all cylinders.
Although the jury may still be out on the true healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet, and the evidence anecdotal, perception, as they say, is reality. No more so than from the perspectives of the food formulator, ever eager to find foods that connect on multiple levels with the consumer. The emerging reality for food marketers is that Mediterranean foods and flavors, with their bold and complex features and healthy halo, are ripe for the picking.
A Diversity of CultureTo its good fortune, world geography and the consumer quest for more culinary adventure is allowing the food industry to more aggressively tap into Mediterranean’s allure. Cradled by southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean region incorporates a broad swath of established food cultures that are different, yet complementary.
French, Italian, Spanish and Greek cuisine used to be Mediterranean cuisine’s standard bearers. Now, foods that have flown under the international radar — those from places like Morocco, Turkey and Syria to Algeria, Tunisia and Libya — are being brought into the fold. At the same time, micro-cuisines of the traditional southern European regions that have long defined Mediterranean foods are drawing more attention for their nuance. Where possible, all are being embraced for the unique twist they can bring to a cuisine that, while popular, is not immune from going stale.
Mediterranean cuisine’s expanding interpretation is evident at restaurants like Dussini Mediterranean Bistro, in San Diego. There, executive chef Walter Manikowski is taking a wider geographic view of the cuisine. His aim is to meld different Mediterranean themes into dishes that offer new flavors and, where possible, a healthier profile. New sous and pastry chefs from Morocco evidence his commitment to an expanding view of the cuisine.
“I’m taking an anthropologic outlook on the region and studying how to incorporate the food cultures of countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco into those of France, Italy and Greece,” he says. “We’re seeing how ingredients are used in different cultures and then working to come up with a different interpretation.”
His work is resulting in Moroccan tajine dishes, meals built around couscous, olives, pungent cheeses and high-grade olive oils; fruit and vegetable purees and pestos; more entrées that use meat-flavored pastas and those made from healthier whole wheat and alternative grains like rice.
Mediterranean’s evolution is also in evidence on the industry trade show circuit. The headline presenter at a recent foodservice industry trends show demonstrates just how broadly Mediterranean is now being defined. In a Mediterranean cuisine trends presentation, Chet Holden, owner of Creative Culinary Services, Dallas, did not put a fresh spin on French, Greek or Italian dishes. Instead, he dissected foods from the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. It was, he says, a nod to the emergence of new Mediterranean subsets that are drawing the attention of more chefs and prepared foods companies.
“If you look at the Mediterranean region, you get an appreciation for the array of what’s out there in terms of cuisines,” says Holden, who also consults for Allen’s Inc., the Springdale, Ark., food company. “The region’s northern coast — Spain, Greece and Sicily — is what you normally think of when you hear the word. But, there just happens to be this little island called Africa, whose north coast is on the Mediterranean Sea. I focused on North Africa, because that seems to be the hot new strain of Mediterranean cooking. Some of the areas there, especially Morocco, are getting as much focus as any area of the Mediterranean right now.”
A New FocusNorth African and Middle Eastern cuisine offers intense and unusual flavors that can be loosely characterized by complex and exotic spice blends and condiments with names like harissa, ras el hanout and chermoula; braised meats and vegetables; and flavors of preserved lemon and other fruits. Preparation is central to the cuisine, as evidenced by the tajine, which refers both to a special, two-piece slow cooking pot and the dishes they yield, such as Moroccan vegetable stews.
Although typical dishes are hardly mainstream fare, the foods utilize many familiar and popular ingredients. Cooking techniques and the flavors produced by the marriage of multiple ingredients with different characteristics define the foods’ personalities and help explain their growing allure.
Sean Craig, senior executive chef with ConAgra Foods, which markets brands such as Marie Callender’s and Rosarita, says North African fare is joining the Mediterranean foods family because it is unique, but not so foreign as to be off-putting to the North American consumer.
“From our research, we’re learning that one of the reasons North African cuisine is becoming so popular is that although it has an exotic allure, it is based on basic ingredients and flavors that Americans know: allspice, cinnamon, cumin, citrus, mint and olives,” he says. “And, the bold seasonings and traditional cooking techniques like stewing, roasting and grilling are simple and appealing to the American palate.”
While more theme restaurants are dabbling in North African cuisine, its migration to the prepared foods world might be slower. The challenge lies in replicating flavors that can be highly complex, but taking care not to be too authentic. Chris Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago, cautions North African foods may prove too exotic for mainstream tastes.
“It fits the profile of big, bold and exciting and, from a prepared foods standpoint, there is a lot of inspiration that could be gleaned, but the flavors are fantastic, surprising and may even be shocking to Americans,” he says.
Yet, some food companies appear eager to push that envelope. Scrambling to stay ahead of the sharp curves in Mediterranean foods, more are turning to flavoring and ingredient suppliers to help produce snack foods, grain-based side dishes and frozen pasta kits that carry authentic flavors.
In his role as corporate chef and manager of culinary research and development for one such supplier, Jud McLester is trying to unlock the secrets to some of the flavor profiles of Mediterranean strains gaining popularity and acceptance. Authenticity is important, though often challenging to achieve because of subtle flavoring differences.
“Many cuisines share the same primary ingredients, but they’re just put together in different ways to create different profiles,” chef McLester says.
New Flavoring and Ingredient TechnologiesWith up-and-coming North African and Middle Eastern foods, the essence of characteristic spice blends can be particularly difficult to isolate. According to chef McLester, popular ones like baharat and garam masala, which rely on fragrant and aromatic spices ranging from cloves, black pepper and coriander to ginger, nutmeg and cumin, can prove especially tricky to translate to products that will work in food systems. “You really have to work to balance some of these intense flavors,” he says. “If you get too much of one spice, you’ll end up with something that’s too astringent.”
Emerging Mediterranean cuisines also rely heavily on cooking and preparation techniques to deliver unique flavor and eye-appeal. That is an especially important factor for the many dishes that use fresh vegetables and meat to deliver flavor and texture. Capturing that in prepared foods has become easier with the advent of new generations of flavorings and ingredients.
Chef Craig, of ConAgra, says savory flavorings that mimic the effects of roasting, grilling and stewing, as well as new types of ready-to-use, non-frozen vegetables that contain and release less water, are helping food companies make Mediterranean foods more authentic, appetizing and eye-appealing.
“Mediterranean cuisine uses vegetables in ways that incorporate bold flavors, which create delicious and visually appealing dishes,” he says. “For example, roasted peppers (in that form) can be added to a prepared sandwich or microwaveable pizza, without weeping excess moisture into the bread or crust.”
Clearly, there are a lot of things to get right in giving prepared foods a Mediterranean twist. Recipes that originate from areas like North Africa and the Middle East have a complexity that is exciting and take the subtlety of flavors to new heights. But, with adventuresome Western consumers clamoring for new taste thrills that still fit the strictures that define healthy foods, taking the time to figure out how to make it happen looks to be a good bet.
For their part, chefs in the foodservice and prepared foods arenas see the rise of new strains as simply a repeat of the past in which cuisine of fringe areas ended up becoming mainstream. They, too, were challenging, but ultimately proved rewarding.
“Mediterranean flavors are not a fad,” chef Craig says. “As Americans become more familiar with regional flavor differences, North African flavors like Moroccan and Egyptian will become distinct in their own right, just as Greek and Tuscan flavors are called out specifically on menus and packages now.”